Cyborg insects generate power for their own neural control

August 31, 2011 by Lisa Zyga, feature

A piezoelectric beam attached to a Green June Beetle reveals the optimum location to scavenge energy and shows that up to 115 µW total power can be generated from the insect’s body movements. Image credit: Aktakka, et al.
( -- For many years, researchers have been working on designing and fabricating micro-air-vehicles (MAVs), flying robots the size of small insects. But after realizing how difficult it is to create a tiny, lightweight flying vehicle capable of carrying a payload and being powered by a long-life onboard power source, some researchers have recently stopped trying to copy real-life insects and started using the insects themselves, with a few small tweaks. For instance, using tiny stimulators near their antennae, electrodes implanted in their central nervous systems, or neuromuscular interfaces, researchers have found that it’s easier to control insect’s brains – and therefore, flight – than to build robotic insects from scratch.

“Although we have seen a tremendous and exciting effort in MAV development in the last decade, cyborg are much more advantageous when it comes to the aerodynamic performance, flight duration, capability, and energy storage at miniaturized scales,” Ethem Erkan Aktakka from the University of Michigan told “The current technology is simply not there yet to beat nature's evolution over several thousands of years.”

So far, the neural control systems in cyborg insects have generally been powered by batteries. But now Aktakka and coauthors Hanseup Kim and Khalil Najafi from the University of Michigan (Kim is currently with the University of Utah), have developed an energy scavenger that generates power from the wing motion of a Green June Beetle during tethered flight. Two generators – one on each of the beetle’s wings – use piezoelectric devices to produce a total of 45 µW of power per insect. The researchers predict that this power could be increased by an order of magnitude through a direct connection between the generator and the insect’s flight muscles.

The study, published in a recent issue of the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering, marks the first attempt to scavenge energy from live insects with non-resonant devices. Previous energy harvesting methods from insects have included using thermocouples to harvest the insect’s body heat and resonant magnetic devices to harvest vibration. Solar cells are also an alternative energy source, although their operation is limited to outdoor applications on sunny days. Since the flapping frequency of the beetles’ wings varies among individuals, and even for the same individual under different conditions, the scientists thought that a non-resonant device could have advantages for harvesting the broadband energy.

Three energy-scavenging prototypes: (Top) A piezoelectric cantilever beam attached lengthwise along the beetle’s body generates 11.5 µW. (Middle) Piezoelectric cantilever beams attached across the beetle’s body each generate 7.5 µW. (Bottom) Piezoelectric spiral beams attached on the beetle’s thorax each generate 22.5 µW. Image credit: Aktakka, et al.

Here, the researchers experimented with piezoelectric cantilever beams on the insect’s wings and piezoelectric spiral beams on its thorax and elytra (wing covers). The devices could operate at 85-105 Hz, which is the flapping frequency range of the Green June Beetle. The spiral beams demonstrated the higher power at 45 µW, while the cantilever beams could produce about half that amount or less. Tests showed that the closer the scavenger devices are to the flight muscle base (the source of vibration), the higher the mechanical force from the beetle and the resulting electrical power output. Using a larger piezoelectric beam in one test, the researchers demonstrated that they could harvest 115 µW when at the optimum location.

“The developed device concept enables the practical deployment and extended operation of the same harvester on any individual of the same species, in addition to a great reduction in overall device weight compared to resonant harvesters,” Aktakka said. “A significant power output can be obtained regardless of several Hz of shift in the flapping frequency, or the ambient conditions such as light or temperature.”

The researchers note that cyborg insects could have the same applications as MAVs, which include search-and-rescue operations, surveillance, monitoring of hazardous environments, and detection of explosives.

“Currently, we are working on the development of a new micro-fabrication process for integration of bulk piezoelectric ceramics into traditional silicon processing,” Aktakka said. “This new technology helps to boost the efficiency of miniaturized vibration energy harvesters, compared to conventional thin-film deposition techniques. We also have ongoing studies on the power electronics side for effective utilization of raw power to recharge a battery or ultracapacitor.”

This project is funded by DARPA under Hybrid Insect MEMS program.

Explore further: IMEC reports 40 microwatt from micromachined piezoelectric energy harvester

More information: Ethem Erkan Aktakka, et al. “Energy scavenging from insect flight.” J. Micromech. Microeng. 21 (2011) 095016 (11pp) DOI:10.1088/0960-1317/21/9/095016


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5 / 5 (6) Aug 31, 2011
I think they should build little microbial fuel cells that generate power from digesting the babies...yeah I said it......and solar cells on their wings, then use those to power frikken lasers mounted on their frikken heads and with a supercap and piezoelectric energy harvesters they will be my little minions.

I will unleash my cicadas of death apon the world and you will kneel before me like the evil genuis that I am.

...wait....I changed my mind, make mine spiders please.
not rated yet Aug 31, 2011
Spiders don't fly so your piezoelectric generators would be useless.
5 / 5 (5) Aug 31, 2011
Spiders don't fly so your piezoelectric generators would be useless.

Mine will.....*rubs hands together*
4.3 / 5 (3) Aug 31, 2011
Flying spiders?!?! Good god, kill this mad man! Or let me join forces with you.
5 / 5 (2) Aug 31, 2011
And some of us wonder why ET in their UFOs need to manually apply the anal probes to BillyBob when robotic insects and DNA sequencing can do the job just as well. OTOH, maybe ET is just a bit pervy and its only for fun.
3 / 5 (2) Aug 31, 2011
But the universe is only 6,000 years or so old so evolution can only happen over thousands of years ;-) Hmmm, perhaps not, though sadly that's what some really are thinking. Sigh.
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 31, 2011
this STILL reminds me of the bat bombs the u.s. deployed against japan to set tokyo on fire.

these insects might be good for spying but it's hard to believe that they won't just be eaten by birds or splatted.

not rated yet Aug 31, 2011
next step, self propagation.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 01, 2011
I think they should build little microbial fuel cells that generate power from digesting the insects...

This has already been done in 2004 ("Eco Bot 2")

Though Eco Bot 2 was not mobile. Eco Bot 3 (built in 2010) was.

No lasers, though....yet.

not rated yet Sep 01, 2011
I love reading the comments on this site. The scary thought of this I had was the fact they're able to gain a degree of control over the insect. What prevents someone from doing that with people?
1 / 5 (3) Sep 01, 2011
What prevents someone from doing that with people?

Issacsname will move on to people after spider control. Be afraid, very afraid.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 01, 2011
I love reading the comments on this site. The scary thought of this I had was the fact they're able to gain a degree of control over the insect. What prevents someone from doing that with people?

Who said they don't?
not rated yet Sep 01, 2011
What prevents someone from doing that with people?

We don't have a good mapping for which neuron does what for people (and it's somewhat different from person to person anyways - you'd need an individual mapping which is something you'd notice if they were trying to take one of you, since that would require some invasive brain surgery)

When you need to go to the hospital it would also show up on any x-ray - and on any magnetic resonance imaging run it would melt...which would get noticed sooner or later because it would either kill the patient (depending on where the chip is) or it would at the very least cause sever pain.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 02, 2011
It would cause a sczizoid imbelism. The implanted individual would start yelling "two weeks" repeatedly and then pull their own head off. Or one could just use a big bug zapper in the case of the beetles.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 02, 2011
It would cause a sczizoid imbelism

I think I'll have a schizoid embolism just from reading how you spelled that.

(And what, in carnation, is a schizoid embolism supposed to be, anyways? Schizophrenia is a neurological disorder while an embolism is an event that blockes a blood vessel)
not rated yet Sep 02, 2011
Maybe a neurological disorder where the patient is paranoid of developing embolisms, where the stress actually causes embolisms?
1 / 5 (1) Sep 02, 2011
"This project is funded by DARPA under Hybrid Insect MEMS program."

Wow, clearly we're evolving on our way to colonizing Mars now now that we can use beetles to power our garden pinwheels. Just shoot me already. So this is where evolution money is going to now ? Fraqing with beetle wings? AAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!! What's next? Hamster-powered toilets? Down with DARPA. Darpa stands for: Don't Ask for Refunds Back People of America.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 02, 2011
If we could really refine this technology it may have quite a value in agribusiness too. I'm thinking optimum pollination of crops - with insects like bees dying out we may need something to help pollinate our crops in the future. We could outfit sentry bugs to help monitor crops ( by taking samples of tissue from field plots to onsite lab for ex ) and act as high tech IPM to fight invasive species at the same time. You could have squads of praying mantises patroling fields looking for specific pests like little terminator robots, ..*spittle forming at corners of mouth, eyes glazing over*
not rated yet Sep 03, 2011
this is where evolution money is going to now

Evolution money? What is hat? And what has evolution got to do with this?

clearly we're evolving on our way to colonizing Mars

Down with DARPA.

Um... I think you have your agencies mixed up: NASA is responsible for getting to Mars. DARPA is responsible for blowing up people here on Earth (and for that we need mini spies/bomb carriers like this beetle)

not rated yet Sep 04, 2011
Its only a matter of time before the robots start using us as a power source - what goes around...
5 / 5 (3) Sep 05, 2011
What prevents someone from doing that with people?

There's no need. Give somebody a few dollars and the promise of cheap college and they'll join your army. Spout religious fan fiction and they'll do even more for less.
1 / 5 (2) Sep 05, 2011
We don't have a good mapping for which neuron does what for people
The Orbital Mind Control Lasers don't need that sort of thing. They effect the mind through subliminal images written directly to the retinas. Even Tin Foil Hats cannot stop them. The only defense is Mirror Shades. Haven't you ever noticed that the President's Secret Servicemen wear Mirror Shades? The OMCL are the reason they do that.

If only nandui and zhenai had been wearing Mirror ShadesTM they would not be mindlessly spamming the site.

If you too want to avoid the OMCL you can order Mirror Shades from


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